How to shop for a new car
When I say “new car” I mean new-to-me. I would never buy a new car. They’re far too expensive and drop a ton of value the moment I leave the lot. New cars makes no sense to me.
Last Thursday, as I was driving from home to on one of the hottest days of the year in my car with no air conditioning, it started to smoke. Not too much but enough to be concerning.
I was on the beltway with no phone1, no air conditioning and a car that was starting to have problems. I nursed the car home, as it wouldn’t go any faster than 40 mph. But it wasn’t until I made it to the hill I live on did I see just how bad it was. The car would barely accelerate past 20 mph. I barely made it up the hill and into a parking space.
After a few hours of letting it cool down and I tried to move it to a new space to avoid a weekend paving project, the car would not shift into gear at all.
No reverse. No drive. No first. Nothing.
I rolled it down the sloping lot to a freshly paved space to avoid it getting towed the next day while the paving continued. Now, it was time for a big decision.
Repair or Buy?
I first thought about repairing the car. I looked at AAA rates and where I could get it towed. Then how much the repair might be, since I suspected it was the transmission or something else major. It looked to be well over $1,000 and as much as $3500. The car wasn’t worth that.
My wife and I talked it over since it already didn’t have air conditioning2, had over 140,000 miles on it and wasn’t in the best physical condition it was time to find another car.
A Word of Warning
Dealers love to call and email you endlessly. They love to try to up sell you and send you marketing materials. I’m still hearing back nearly four days later about cars I’ve already declined or cars they told me were sold already.
Before you start contacting anyone, setup a new email address and if possible, a Google Voice phone number or something similar. You will get calls from dealers or associates from other dealerships all trying to win your business. Even after you’ve told them you already made a purchase.
The hunt begins
Where to start? Since I am tall (6’5″), I am limited in what I can drive. I had a 2001 Ford Taurus since I fit into it and could drive it comfortably. However, after 8 years of driving the same car, I was ready for a change.
Since we had talked about getting an SUV when my car did finally die, we looked into those as well as other sedans to see what was out there and what we could afford.
We wanted a car that could last us at least five years since even with the down payment we had and I’d get no trade-in value for my car, we’d need a longer term loan. We had a couple of guidelines when we started looking.
- Under 80,000 miles, ideally closer to 60,000
- Price around $10,000, with a down payment of $2000 – $4000
- Clean Carfax report
- Good mileage
- Good safety rating
With this in mind, we started looking.
Carmax – Lots of variety, high prices
We visited a local Carmax. I like Carmax because they have a huge variety of cars and each car has a lockbox on it so the salesman has access to every key to every car on the lot. This makes it easy to perform a series of sit tests.
Because of my height, I have a series of tests I performed in each car.
- Can I comfortably get in and out of the car?
- Is it tall enough? Does my head hit the roof?
- Do I have enough leg room or are my legs splayed out around the steering wheel?
- Does it have an adjustable steering wheel?
- When the wheel is adjusted to where I need it, does it obstruct my view of the instruments?
- Is it comfortable to sit in? Does anything dig into or rub against my leg from the dashboard?
- Is the sear adjustable? Can I make it lower or move it back far enough to fit my long legs?
- Do I feel confined by the center console. Is it comfortable to reach into when I’m in the driver’s seat?
These are the things I look for when I sit in a car and decide if it’s something I’m interested in. You wouldn’t believe the number of SUVs so short my head rests on the roof or instrument panels that jut out impeding my knees, sharp edges that dig into my legs or the amount of contortion needed to enter and leave the vehicle.
When I look at a car, I consider a lot of things before I even start the engine and take it for a drive. I need to not be annoyed by minor things since I will be driving the car every single day.
Incidentally, we never had the intention of buying from Carmax because their prices were much too high. It didn’t help that our salesman was terrible. He wandered away from us, steering us towards expensive luxury vehicles. He didn’t listen to our questions or requests to see certain cars. More than a few times we had to wait at a car we wanted to see until he came back from whatever other vehicles he wanted to show us.
Even if we wanted to buy something, I would not have bought that day because the salesman was so bad. It is worth noting I have had positive experiences with Carmax before. The last time I looked, I was in Richmond and had a stellar salesman who was attentive to my questions and really helped me choose the right make and model of vehicle for me.
Carmax served its purpose
Carmax’s purpose was to allow me to see what was out there and what I liked and it served that purpose admirably. I had an idea where to start looking elsewhere. With so many cars on the market, it’s important to narrow the choices. We left with five choices in mind.
In the beginning, I was resistant to getting an SUV despite the advantages in poor weather and increased storage capacity. I wanted another car because I liked driving them.
However, after looking at the smaller SUVs, I was warming to the idea and really liked some of them.
We had narrowed the list of desirable cars to:
- Nissan Murano
- Ford Escape
- Ford Explorer
- Honda CR-V
- Dodge Charger
We visited three places and I test drove a Nissan Murano, Ford Explorer and looked at a couple other SUVs in the same class.
I really liked the Murano. It was a little nicer than the others. It had a massive dashboard area where I could set something without it sliding around. I liked how it rode and handled. It had massive amounts of room but wasn’t too big. It had pretty good gas mileage.
The Explorer was just too big. We don’t need a third row of seats and it rode like a truck, not a car.
The Ford Escape was nice but prices were on par with the Murano which and the Murano was a little more luxurious
The Honda CR-V was surprisingly expensive. I had expected them to be more affordable. They were as expensive as the Muranos but not as fun to drive or nice inside.
The Dodge Charger was more of a pipe dream. I’ve always liked the look of them but couldn’t find any that were within our price range. Except one offered by a Craigslist scammer.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Remember that.
We saw a listing for a 2006 Dodge Charger and emailed about it since the price was fairly low but not suspiciously low.
The reply we received was this (emphasis is mine),
I’ve received your email regarding the 2006 Dodge Charger RT with 52,882 miles on it, Sedan, Automatic, Gasoline, Engine: 5.7L V8 SFI. The car is still for sale and my asking price is $3300. It is a 2006 model loaded with everything.You have here the VIN # to see that everything is like I said : VIN REMOVED. The car is very well maintained and it has just been completely serviced. The engine runs very good and the automatic transmission shifts perfectly.The car is in perfect condition with clear title,no accidents, no liens or loans. I’m an oceanographer and I’m on sea at this moment, so I left the car in Perkins OK, at the shipping company, it’s already packed and waiting to be shipped anywhere. Here are some pictures with the car: LINK REMOVED Let me know if you are still interested. Regards, Jennifer Bradley
We received a couple different email replies signed by different names from different oceanographers around the country to various car ads.
So either there was a huge number of oceanographers trying to sell cars on Craigslist, or these are all scams. Hint: Craigslist’s Car Sales page comes with a warning that includes, Offers to ship a vehicle are virtually 100% fraudulent.
More car hunting
The test drives helped solidify my choice of cars and I wanted the Nissan Murano. The CR-Vs were too expensive for what I felt wasn’t as nice a car. The Chargers were too expensive and the Ford Escapes were about the same price as the Muranos from the same year.
Edmunds – Cars for Dummies
It has fantastic reviews of cars from all makes, models and years and it’s super easy to use from a mobile phone since the URL is very easy.
On the main page, they give the fuel economy, “What Edmunds Says”, a short review of the vehicle, and their pros and cons. It’s a great way to get a 30 second overview of a vehicle and helped steer us away from certain years where the car had maintenance problems, or certain models that rode harshly.
The site also offers safety, reliability, features, etc for the vehicles. It has everything you would want to know about a car before making a purchase.
Mission for Murano
The Nissan Murano had won out as the top choice for a vehicle. Now it was time to find one. Back to Craigslist we went, combing the headlines and refreshing to see if anything new was listed.
The first email was never returned a day later so we called and the number was disconnected.
The second car was already sold by the time we found it.
The third try was met with success. I called the number and spoke to the owner we agreed to meet on a rainy Saturday evening about 20 minutes away.
So my wife and I jumped in her car and met the owners who had a beautiful Burgundy 2006 Nissan Murano. The car looked to be in great condition and talked about it for a bit including why they were looking to sell the car.
The seller let us take it on a test drive and it was wonderful. The ride was smooth. The engine sounded good and the acceleration was smooth and braking firm and responsive. Even on the wet roads it was a good ride and the lights and wipers did their job admirably. The car had 60,000 or so miles on it and the owner wanted $11,000 even for it.
A little higher than we wanted to spend but the car was in great shape and had lower miles that we had expected to find. It looks like a great deal.
Now came the most important part.
We asked for the VIN number to run a Carfax report. I told the owner if the Carfax report was clean, I would call him the next day to arrange the sale of the car.
We shook hands and parted ways. Driving home, we were giddy. We had found a great looking car for a good price. When we got home, I plugged the VIN into Carfax expecting to be delighted…
And my heart sank.
Always check Carfax, Always!
I had never seen a big red exclamation point on a Carfax report before. So I read on.
The car had severe damage from an accident in New York some years before. The car had been in an accident again and declared a total loss / salvage and was issued a salvage title.4
The car wasn’t worth the risk.
We quickly located two more 2006 Muranos for a little more money but both from local dealerships with free, clean Carfax reports. It was Sunday afternoon so we called and confirmed they were open and off we went.
We took a ride to the first and wanted to look at one they had available. We arrived and told the first person to pounce on us, we had seen the car on their website and noted the price we had seen it advertised for and wanted to know if they still had it.
He said he knew exactly what car we were talking about and praised it and our choice.
The car was there and Burgundy. It also looked to be in great shape. We took it for a test drive and it rode as smoothly as our the one from the previous night. It was smooth, responsive and had been meticulously cleaned and had some minor repairs done by the dealership.
It was in great shape and had around 65,000 miles on it. We talked it over and decided we wanted it. The second Murano was a 2003 with considerably more miles on it so we felt this was a better deal.
We told the salesman we wanted the car and we started the paperwork. There is a lot of paperwork.
We spent just under $12,500 for the car plus the tax, tags, title and other expensive T-words. I feel good about the purchase. We are going to take it on our upcoming vacation which should be a good road test for it and if anything does go wrong, it’s still covered under the limited-time warranty.
As I had left mine at home when I raced out the door to try to drive into some of the worst traffic in the US and back in time for my Batman movie marathon. Needless to say, I missed the first movie. ↩
Which I had just talked about getting repaired a day earlier. ↩
The Washington Post uses them for their car classified ads. ↩
This is when I learned New York state won’t issue a title for s salvaged car to the previous owners had moved it to Maryland which would apparently issue a title for it. ↩